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One Friday morning, Joben, Hannah, and Joyce gathered around the table at Jacob’s Well, with coffee in hand, to have a conversation about one very important topic: FOOD. 

Here is what they have to say...

(Read on or listen to the audio:)

On Food (Part 1)
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On Food (Part 2)
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Joben   Well, we've been talking about this idea about setting the table, really wrestling with the idea of who sets the table, who owns the table.  How far is our role in curating that table? And so with that, we've got conversations that we want to talk about.  One of the things we want to talk about is food. And so today, that's what we're going to talk about.  I'm Joben.

Hannah   I'm Hannah.

Joyce   And I'm Joyce.

Joben   Each of us are here at Jacob's Well and have been for different periods of time.  And these are things that interest us.  So we're gonna talk about it!  Anyone have anything to start it off?

Joyce   Food is good.

“Where Do You Get Your Food From?”

Joben   Food is good.  That much is true.  And at Jacob's Well, food is definitely synonymous with a lot of what we do.  So I get these questions all the time: “Where do you get your food from?”  “All that food was good?”  “Where did that come from?”  And I'm always answering, “Lots of places!  Many ways!”  And so I thought maybe we'll talk about some of that.  

And, “Oh, do you feed the hungry at Jacob's Well?” I'm like, “Well, yeah, we're all hungry.”  “But is it a drop-in food time?”  Yes and no.  

Food and Community Kitchen at Jacob’s Well

Joben   And so, maybe to start us off, Joyce - you've been at Community Kitchen for a long time.  Can you tell us a little bit about what Community Kitchen looks like?

Joyce   Community kitchen.  We have that at least once a week, and it's just a time and place for everyone to gather around food.  So we cook together, we eat together, we clean together.  Even though food is what draws us together, it’s not the most important part.  I think it's almost just a vehicle for us to be able to gather and to be able to bless each other and to receive blessing from each other, through food and through serving and hospitality.

Joben   And it's sort of the crux from which food is at Jacob’s Well.  It's the meeting place where people come together.  What a Wednesday would look like is folks will come in by like three o'clock and play some card games.  We don't eat ‘til five.  But the idea that we will come for that communion and rather than filling our bellies is the very ethos of Jacob’s Well.  And in the Downtown Eastside, a lot of people want to give us food.  “Do you need us to buy you some cans?” I quite often say no.  You know, we've got food.  The Downtown Eastside has food.  But that welcome to the table equitably is a bit different.  

Why We Do Food

Joben   But why do we do food?  We could talk a little bit about that.  Why do you or why do all of us do food?

Hannah   Well, it makes me think about when you invite someone into your own home and how you're going to host them.  But it's also like the hosts are everyone that's gathering at the table.  It's not one person over the other; there's power in gathering and sharing space around a warm plate of food and the conversation that comes from that.  The whole point of cooking together, cleaning together, eating together - it's like you're all on the same playing field and that you're all having a part of this collective moment where we're just connecting over food because food is important.  It's how people show their love.  It's how they commune.

Connecting Through Food

Joben   Hannah, what would a food look like for you?  Is food a good memory in your life?

Hannah   Oh, yeah, for sure.  Growing up in a Ukrainian Polish household, food is so important.  It's how my mom definitely showed her love to us.  And, I find for myself, if I'm hosting someone, the first thing I'm asking is, “Have you eaten something?”  Because I can share what I have with them.  So I definitely have lots of good memories around food.  But I think it's less about what we ate and more about what we're doing together and having a moment of conversation and connection.

Joben   That's interesting, because that is very much when people walk into Jacob’s Well, a question we often ask is, “Have you eaten?”  Because we have food in the fridge generally, and we can always whip something up and we always ask, “Have you eaten?”  

And the other one is, for a lot of injustices in our neighborhood and for a lot of historical issues that each of us have and the traumas we carry, almost all of us have at least some good memory of food.  And so it's amazing when you talk to someone and you say, “Hey, what was your favorite meal growing up?”  Well, that really opens up a space of conversation that asking about school or other things may not do so.

Hannah   That’s so true.  And I was just thinking about a conversation around shortbread cookies that I had here, because there was some shortbread cookies and someone was telling me all about the memories from their grandmother making shortbread cookies.  And we just talked about that shared experience of making holiday cookies together.  But how much was it about the shortbread cookies?  

Joben   And how much was it about other good memories and people that connect? 

Hannah   Yeah.

Joben   And we find that food, when treated as a conduit to relationship, becomes a beautiful thing, more than just feeding hungry stomachs.  And so we do a lot of food at Jacob's Well, so much so that some people think all we do is food.  And I am totally fine with that reputation, because it is important.  

Where We Get Our Food

Joben   And so, to answer the question of, “Where do we get our food?”  We got many ways of getting our food.  One of the things we've been doing in the last four to five years is we've been partnering with an organization called Food Stash that rescues food from markets.  

And so, Joyce, you're at Community Kitchen, what are some of the things we get? I mean, you've seen our meals.

Joyce   We get a lot of produce.  A lot of produce, and we get pastries and baked goods.

Joben   We get a lot of meat, we get a lot of, a lot of protein.

Joyce   I feel like it's never in shortage, there's always plenty.

Joben   In Canada, this is the statistics.  It's very sad.  In Canada, we waste about 58% of food we manufacture.  So that’s a large percentage of stuff that potentially goes to a landfill.  Food Stash is an organization that rescues that food and we get a large portion of it.  The other group we work with and I've worked with for a long, long time is the Vancouver Food Bank that sends us a lot of our long-life stuff.  So our rice and our pasta generally comes from there.  But it's that combination, along with community members that will show up with food every once in a while.  Community members will show up with extra pasta or cheese they had at home and that then constitutes our meal. 

Food and Relationship

Joben   But we probably turned away a lot of food during COVID.  As grocery stores shut down, we really ramped up the food intake.  And so everyone from community members and churches showed up with tons of groceries.  Joyce, you were there during those times.  Do you remember what we used to do every week?

Joyce   During COVID, we would come together.  Just a few of us would come to this space and we’ll just set up all these grocery bags and the names of our friends.  Sometimes we know what their preferences are or some of their restrictions are, their dietary restrictions.  So we would fill the grocery bags with some of the produce or the foods that we have and deliver them.  There are teams of people who deliver them to their doors and come up to them that way.

Joben   And the beauty of it was not that the food was available.  The beauty of it was that we had a deep relationship with each other.  And so I knew my friend Devon had a heart issue and so couldn't eat certain foods.  So he wasn't getting a generic grocery bag.  He was getting a grocery bag from friends who knew what he needed.  And that is a much more beautiful spread of food than just signing up for a grocery delivery or something, which is also wonderful.  

And I think - let's caveat this - I think hunger is a problem and resources not meeting need is a problem.  And all of this is not to say that we don't need to feed the hungry.  And we do feed the hungry - every Wednesday and other times during the week.  But we're not just doing the hungry.  We're trying to fill more than that.

So during COVID, we got all this stuff and our pantry was full.  And then people could come, as COVID ended.  And we weaned that program, and people could come in and pick up groceries if they wanted.  We have beans and canned goods and things.  We're slowly trying to reduce that because there is harm in having too much.  And so, right now we probably have a month-and-a-half to two-months’ worth of protein that we have frozen ahead of time.  That's something we do.  Protein is definitely a need and want in our neighborhood.  And so, making sure we have protein in every meal is important to us.  Because we know each other, we've got vegetarian-specific meals we cook every time, we've had to do halal-specific meals at times when that was required, if someone doesn't eat pork, then we don't do pork.  So because we are about people, the food matches what we need to do for people.

Hannah   Because you know what their needs are from conversations and having that ready.  It's wonderful when you go somewhere and you don't feel like you need to stick out your neck to ask for the vegan meal or ask for the ‘no peanuts’ or what have you, right?  Just to have somebody prepare something that you can eat without having to ask for this accommodation, that's even a little bit of human dignity.

Stewardship of the Earth

Joben   Some of this has led us to thinking about ways that we protect our planet.  We've talked about the Food Stash thing, how we use a lot of rescued food.  We use a lot of food that would have gone to a landfill.  We don't pay a lot for our food.  We pay a delivery fee every year for Food Stash to deliver food, but that's way less than the food that we do get.  Once a year we do a burger pop-up, which is, we grind steak into burgers, and that's a good thing.  It's good that we feed people with good food.  

But recently, we've been thinking about prioritizing the ways that we can be good stewards of the land we are in and the planet as environmental issues continue to be something that we partake in and want to support.  Every summer, our community is involved at a farm.  In the past, we've been involved and probably will continue to be involved in some capacity at UBC Farm.  We've had community gardens here that many of our community members work in.  One of our meals every year is produce that we've grown.  We've grown stuff in our little garden boxes up front.  And this next year, we are partnering with some city farms, so some portion of our produce will always be grown by us.  And I think that's a wonderful thing.  And so this combination, this prioritization of setting this table, the prioritization of friends, taking care of each other, coming together around food.  Then all of us, the community prioritizing the land we live in and the world we occupy, are things that I think we are committed to responding to. 

And so that means rescuing food from the dump.  And this is not bad food, this is good food.  And it means using resources like the Food Bank, where the cost of food is subsidized at a time when food is expensive.  And the third is growing our own food as much as we can.  And these are things we are committed to and producing, making it possible for us to eat well and eat as people together while also caring for the world around us.  That's why I have thoughts on these things.

Joyce   I just remember hearing from friends who went to the farm that day and picked berries or gathered vegetables and then seeing it go from the farm to the table, to eat together and feed each other.  And just how much joy that brought people and the time that they were able to spend with each other doing that.  I think it was just a beautiful thing to see.

Joben   And we've done other things.  We've picked berries when a farm has offered us.  “Oh, come, pick berries!”  We'd pick berries and we made our own jam.  We've gone and picked quince and we've made our own quince jam, and this next year, hopefully we'll do more of that.  Just good things.  

What might be ways that we would continue doing this in the future?  I think I would love for us to have a farm someday.  I think the ability for friends and for us to put our hands in the dirt and be part of the growth of food is a beautiful thing.  These are dreams, but one day, maybe, Jacob's Well will have its own farm.  Jacob's Well in the past has had its own urban farms, and maybe it's something we will do again.  If anyone has a farm, you call us!

Local Choices, Global Impact

Hannah   It's thinking about the hyper local nature of what Jacob's Well does, of being right here in the city.  It's a small community of people who are really motivated to come together and connect, and I see it being very sustainable.  There is the people who are going to want to go work on that farm and that's going to give them a piece of ownership in this space.  Because they put the seed in the soil or they picked the berry off of the vine.  And then, in addition to the more structural supports of the Food Bank and the Food Stash, it's like these are all things that Jacob’s Well is playing a role in, making an impact very locally.  Because the food you're talking about - this rescued food - it's food that has maybe some imperfections and it's not going to go to Whole Foods.  But it's good food, it's healthy.  It can't be sold but it's perfect.  I think that's a really powerful thing because we know that capitalism and consumerism is harming our environment, and so by taking that food or that product and being able to redistribute it and use it is huge.

Joben   Yeah, and more local choices like that will change our systems and change our city and our province and our country and turn the world.  The welcome to that table, that extra spot, and a commitment to saying ‘I'm going to bring good food to the table’ is world changing, in my opinion.

Hannah   That extra spot, it's mother nature, in a way, she's here at the table.

Joben   At Food Stash, they talk about how you partner or in some ways we're in partnership with the planet.  We're friends with each other, but we also are friends with the world we occupy in those tangible food ways.  

Hannah   I was just going to say because I think so often too, a lot of donations to food banks are often the really processed stuff - high sodium - and things like that.  And so I think it's also so cool that we can get nutritious produce for free.

Joben   Yeah, someone else's waste is our gain.  I mean, it shouldn't be waste and that's a deeper issue that we may not tackle here, but we are a part of solving it at least.

Favourite Food Memories

Joben   If we can go around and just say your favorite meal or maybe your favorite memory around food.

Hannah   So, my sister-in-law might kill me.  But this is a family Kochuk legend of the forgotten pierogi.  So pierogies - every culture has some form of dumpling.  Those are the Polish Ukrainian version, dough and potato, and they take a very long time.  And that's again, going back to the shared experience of making the pierogi.  I have so many good memories of doing that with my family.  And they take a long time.  And so my sister-in-law, I think it was her first family gathering when she was still the girlfriend.  And she took three pierogies, ate two of them, and one just stayed on the table and didn't make it into her belly.  And I think my mom had had a little bit of a heart attack, watching that pierogi go to waste.

Joben   The lonely pierogi!

Hannah   It was the lonely pierogi!  And this is a story - Melissa, my sister-in-law, has been in our family now for probably 15 years - and it still gets brought up.  So that's the thing though, right?  It's a funny story that comes out.  But it's because that love that went into that little pocket of a pierogi and it's really meaningful to spend the time that it takes to make it to sharing the meal together.  And it's a funny story that's become a little urban legend now. I want to ask you, Joyce, do you have one?

Joyce   Yeah, similarly, my food memories always are really of home cooked, homemade food that's just filled with love.  So in our household, there are a lot of big Chinese celebration dinners.  Sometimes we go to restaurants and have multi courses.  But the meals that I remember the most are the ones that you cooked at home.  Very homey.  Very simple.  Just rice and a couple of side dishes.  But I think if I had to choose, my favorite meal would be a very simple home cooked Chinese meal that I remember my parents would make, even just rice and some ground beef and an egg or something.  That's what I remember.

Joben   That's beautiful.  So I've lived away from my home for a long time.  My parents live in India and I think every time I miss any of it, all I need is to close my eyes and think and I can remember my mom's dal.  No one makes it like her.  And bhindi.  Bhindi is okra and some protein.  It doesn't matter too much, but it's that dal and the smell of it.  No one else can smell it but I can smell it in my head.  That meal is beautiful, but then there's all these things I remember.  Every birthday my mom would come and say, “What do you want?”  And when we were kids, we didn't want anything to do with Indian food.  We wanted mashed potatoes or whatever.  But the older we got, we just want some dal and rice or roti and bhindi.  The memory is strong and important, not just because the food is delicious.  My mom's a great cook.  It's delicious, but it's also important because it is my mom.  And in some ways, for Jacob's Well, that's our hope - our hope is that those deep friendships flourish around the table brought together by food.  Good food.

Joyce   Interesting how our memories of food are not just about the food, it's actually about the people that we were with.

Joben   And I think we've each got our long share of memories at Jacob's Well, around people and conversations.  And maybe we remember the food that brought those up.  So it's a good thing and glad to get to be part of it.

Hannah   For sure.

And the conversation continues…

An Invitation to Be

Hannah   …He's talking about, “Chris makes the best water.”  “Oh really?  What does he put in it?”  And he's like, “There's watermelon in it today,” or something like that.  And he was so pumped because he got to cut the watermelon or whatever, and there's Jay Hannah, going and putting little crumbles of onions on people's dishes.  Just something so small, but it's a chance for them to not just connect with the person that they're sitting across or beside…

Joben   …all of us, too.

Hannah   Yeah, the entire room, I was thinking about that too.

Joben   But yeah, that invitation to be part of the creation.  I mean, it's almost a holy thing to be invited to be part of creating something.  Especially in this neighborhood, we are always invited to be consumers.  The entire world is begging us to be consumers.  We are not as much invited to be creators.  And that is a very high responsibility and a gift.

Hannah   What you were saying at the beginning, when you're talking about how a Wednesday looks, from making the food, cooking to serving.  And I was thinking about how, when you think about charity, you often think about serving someone and it's usually the volunteers who are serving the community.  But here, it's so beautiful that everyone's serving.  And there are some times when I'm coming as someone who's a practicum student on the staff team, and I'm just going to sit there and sit next to someone.  I remember the first time I came, Julie saved me a seat and was worried that I wasn't going to show up in time, and she literally took her bag off the seat and was like, “I saved you a seat!”  I didn't get to do anything in the kitchen because I didn't have to, and because so many people wanted to. 

Joben   This is a whole conversation that we can talk more about - setting the table.  The urge for many of us who have come from a charity mindset is to come solve every problem. ‘Let me come do all the things’ or ‘I haven't done enough.’  And we are much more inviting each other to a state of being rather than doing.  And we can do forever and it just will not be what each of us needs.  And ultimately, we want to be welcoming each other into a community where we can be.  So, Joyce and Hannah, come as Joyce and Hannah, not Hannah the cook or Joyce the server, but Joyce and Hannah.

Hannah   You just come and if you're wanting to serve, you serve.  If you're wanting to just talk, that's cool too.

Joben   In fact, that might be more important than the serving on some days.  And on other days, maybe the serving is important.  And it doesn't matter which day it is.

Joyce   It's such a gift to be invited to that.  Invited to sit or to eat or to serve or to clean.

Joben   And this week, I was talking to someone, and this is something we do at least once a year.  Our good friend, Mama Liz, has a friend who catches salmon, and every once in a while, she'll say, “Oh, I got too much salmon.  Here's salmon.  Can I bring the salmon over?”  I said, “Yeah!” “I'll bring the salmon over.”  And then we'll have another friend who wants to cook bannock.  And we'll cook bannock and salmon, and we'll smoke the salmon, and we'll, make fresh fried bread.  It is an honour to be part of that - an honour for me, but also a wonderful invitation for a new person in the kitchen.

Joyce   So many of our friends also enjoy doing dishes together or cleaning together, because maybe not all of us have the opportunity to do that for our friends.  To be able to clean and to do dishes together.  And some great conversations happen around that too.  I really love that.

Joben   Yeah, that's the thing.  We often think of the hero as the one who comes and saves people.  And I'm beginning to think sometimes the hero is the one who gets out of the way.  And maybe there's something to that.  I think moms and cooking food in people's homes are synonymous.  Moms do it all the time.  They're always clapping on the sidelines for people.  And I think we need to take our cues from those heroes and we get out of the way, sometimes.  We don't have to be the supplier of all things.  

And that this again, we will talk about this a bit more as we talk about the table and our role in it and what our invitation is like.

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